canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Drought and other stories 
by Jan Thornhill
Cormorant Books, 2000

Review by Ken Sparling 

Jan Thornhill, her jacket bio says, is an illustrator, and Drought is, from the start, very apparently an illustrator's book. Jan sketches things out, then links them together, fills in the empty spaces. 

The first story starts with bones. Bones that she finds in the forest. She gives us bones, then sketches in the scene around them briefly, then comes back -- unable to leave those bones where they lay -- and sketches tentative animals around the bones: "The bones. She doesn't know what creature once belonged to them, what creature's tendons, muscles, sinews once latched them one to another, rubber bands controlling the movement of limbs, joints." 

Which is exactly right, exactly as it should be, Jan Thornhill being the illustrator that she is (she illustrated the jacket of the book). 

She also has the fears of an illustrator, and these make themselves apparent in the book. When she imagines a deer being hit by a hunter's bullet, she says, "...a deer running frantic from a rifle crack, from the ripping, rippling (she imagines) pain of a bullet wound..." 

The parenthetical 'she imagines' is what gives her away. An illustrator works the surface of the thing, and to give us the pain of a bullet, without qualifying it by explaining that she herself has never actually experienced the pain of a bullet, and can only imagine, would be dangerous. 

And she doesn't ever give us the pain of a bullet. Again, that would take the sort of act a good illustrator might fear. Jan gives us what she can see, not the bullet, lodged now in the deer and thus hidden, but the "bullet wound", which you can see, which can be illustrated. 

Not that Jan Thornhill doesn't draw well. Her strength is portraits. She worries away at her characters, forcing questions, drawing furiously around these questions. 

There's a violence in her strokes. Or, more accurately, a violence suggested, because an illustrator can't show you the attack of the brush, the motion of the arm, the pace of her breath and where it gets held. An illustrator can't show you duration, only result. 

But inside those results there might always, at any moment, be a suggestion of what went on inside. That's what Thornhill manages. The violence is motion. We lose that sense of violence inherent in the motion when we behold the objective result of that motion. Like the one-eyed man in the title story, we lose depth. 

Jan turns that loss to her advantage: 

Breathing lightly and quickly, forcing herself, she presses her hand to her eye again. She knows she will become used to it eventually, will become inured to the flatness, to the banality. And when that happens, she will be able to climb down. One-eyed and lacking perspective, she waits for that moment to come. 

Half the time, I didn't know what the heck Jan was getting at. Somebody else might be able to figure it out. Somebody afraid enough of mystery to want to say what everything means. 

I don't think the work is that dense. In fact, there are places where the intention seems transparent. Those are the worst places in the book. They aren't really awful -- nothing in this book is -- but they are mildly unengaging. There aren't many of these unengaging moments. The story about the woman hot for a taxidermist is one. Things of major synchronicity keep occurring. 

Jan likes the highly improbable, but simultaneously highly fitting gesture. The narrator of the taxidermist story brings roadkill to the taxidermist to try to win his love. At one point she sets out to do some road killing herself, despite the fact that she is a vegetarian exactly because she doesn't want to see animals killed for food. 

She drives around waiting for her opportunity, waiting for an animal to run out into the road so she can hit it with her car, and when an opportunity presents itself, she can't do it -- she hits the brakes before she hits the animal. But the animal that runs out in front of her car turns out to be a Siamese twin weasel with two heads, two tails and six feet. A taxidermist's dream. 

Here's an example of something I didn't quite get, didn't want to get, a moment at the end of a story that I loved for its inscrutability. It's a story about a woman and her goldfish and her man who is having an affair. This is the passage: 

Insects whispered above my head. Lake Ontario licked its shore. I sat on the dry pebble beach for a long time, until imprints of the stones were left on my thighs, even through my jeans. I lay back and stared up at the clouds sweeping slowly east, waiting expectantly for one of them to split apart, waiting for a big net to appear, to scoop me up and transport me to some other place, a place where I would be free of this anger, this throbbing sorrow, this pain. I stared at the clouds until it was me who was moving and not them, until I was floating in the opposite direction, effortlessly swimming against the rotation of the earth. 

I thought there must be something profound here, but I didn't think about it too much, just went on to the next story. 

Later, I read this: 

...she stared at Bobby's hay-dusted jeans bunched on the floor at her feet, her thoughts swarming around his tragic story of the lost goose, approaching it from different angles, trying to find meaning in both the story itself and the indisputable yet curious reality that he had actually told it to her. By the time they turned up Lydia's drive, Martha had convinced herself that the implications were profound. 

So there are profound implications. Even Thornhill's characters sense them there. Still, I didn't know what these profound implications were. I was almost refusing to know at this point, because Jan was almost (almost, but not quite) thrusting them in my face. 

Suddenly -- and I won't say which story I was reading when it came to me, because that would be giving too much away -- but suddenly I realized there are no real profound implications, there is no thing you can pinpoint and teach in a class, as though it were a fact, the way the name of a flower can be shared with others as though the others who were sharing it weren't important, were just other people who happened upon this stable moment that is the name of a flower. No, Jan's profoundness came of an investment, and the investment depended on another individual. 

That was it. Except, the really important thing is, Jan didn't tell me this, the way I'm telling you. If you think I'm telling you something stupid, or obvious, it's because I'm just telling you. Jan manipulates you so you think you figured it out yourself. It's a wonderful feeling, to be manipulated that way. Almost as good as the feeling Martha, the main character in the story "Pinned", gets when the boys pin her down in the hay field and pull up her shirt to feel her breasts through her bra. 

"Kit leaned against the table after Mark left, staring at his beaded saliva in the dirt, hating him so hard she couldn't even cry." 

(I like that sentence.) 

The tension in the best of Jan's stories is deeply rooted in Jan's overwhelming desire to have nature -- the weather, the animals, the insects in her stories -- mirror the drought her characters are experiencing in their souls. When Jan is able to maintain a balance -- in other words, when she is able to keep the reader off balance by controlling her impulse to make everything parallel -- the stories are like those summer thunder storms that never bring the rain they seem to predict. 

The end of the story called "Extreme" is so poignant, so glaringly symbolic, yet somehow (don't ask me how) so subtle, that it really is the extreme end of Jan's incredible talent. You should read it. 

The third person stories are about the distance created by the proximity of people in relationships. The first person stories suggest intimacy. Everything is suggested: 

He is good-looking, and since the party I've been having fantasies -- in the bath, where all my best fantasizing is done. There is a scar on his cheekbone, a glazed arc of purplish skin. I imagine running my finger along its length, my tongue. I imagine never asking him how he got it. 

Some of the early stories left me slightly shaken. "Saint Francis and the Birds", on the other hand, stopped my heart dead. When Ed fed the pigeons rat poison...And then, at the end, when the innocuous smell of mint suddenly meant everything at once and nothing at all that I could put my finger on... 

I was riding the bus to work, reading a story called "Life in the Country" and I was falling asleep. The title alone made me want to sleep. After Jan's other titles: "Action"; "Pinned"; "Violation"; "Drought"; "Extreme". 

Obviously some people like life in the country, but I don't think Jan Thornhill is one of them. At least, her feelings must be deeply ambivalent. There's nothing ambivalent about the reasons "Life in the Country" is a sleepy story, though. People. The real danger in the country is the lack of people. The narrator of "Life in the Country" says, "It has occurred to me that I may be too lonely to work." 

I only point out the weakness of "Life in the Country" because it, along with two or three other stories, is in such stark contrast to the majority of the stories, which are extremely powerful. Maybe Jan thought that in order to get across to the reader the loneliness of life in the country, she would have to leave her character alone in the country, but the real power in the story comes in those very few moments when the narrator's loneliness crashes into the company of other characters. 

In the good stories (most of them), the characters are in messy relationships right from the start, and Jan reveals the extent of the mess through her dazzling exploration of quirky detail. She doesn't take a relationship and mess it up, or try to make reasons for the mess. She assumes a mess from the start. Relationship = mess. This is her strength. This is what rescues her stories. She isn't proving anything, making anything clear. She is stirring the pond to muddy the water. 

In "Life in the Country" she attempts to trace the motion leading into the mess that is loneliness. The story fails because she settles for the sort of graded escalation of symptoms that a grad school writer might employ: 

  1.  The narrator hates the cows living in her yard, but keeps her hatred to herself. 
  2.  The narrator goes out into the yard and calls the cows names. 
  3. The narrator throws rocks at the cows. 

With each escalation, the reader feels the disappointment of a wholly benign predictability. 

There are stories that build inevitably toward a climax. Events actually spiral upward. As soon as you, the reader, find yourself in a spiral, you know you are in a spiral and it becomes nothing but being in a spiral. The details become secondary to the motion of the spiral. The details exist only to further the spiral. When a piece of writing spirals out of control, it is the spiral that is in control, no longer the writer, and the reader's trust fades. 

I suppose the patter of interesting detail is supposed to save these few of Jan's stories that spiral out of control. At a certain point -- and it's no single point in the collection, but a point in Jan's approach to the reader -- Jan decides to let the details become their own reason, and the stories rise up magically, unbidden almost -- almost in spite of Jan's phenomenal control of detail, a control that would seem to deny the possibility of story (narrative) the way the details of a real life never seem to give themselves willingly to story. 

It's worth reading the entire collection for the many stories that accomplish this resistance to story, worth even perhaps reading the weaker stories for the clue they give as to why the strong stories are so strong. 

"I caught myself sneaking a glance across the road, aimed low, but pulled my eyes back in the nick of time."

Ken Sparling is the author of Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall. His fiction has appeared in The Danforth Review.







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